August 20, 2020

INDIANAPOLISThis year marks the 65th anniversary of A.J. Foyt attending his first Indianapolis 500 as a fan in 1955 when he was 20 years old. Foyt had listened to the race on the radio for years along with his dad Tony. In 1956, A.J. competed in the midget races at 16th Street Speedway across from IMS and two years later at age 23, he was starting in his first Indy 500 as the youngest driver in the field. He was the fastest rookie but spun in his own oil on lap 148, finishing 16th. We asked him a few questions…

Q: What do you remember most about your rookie year at Indy in 1958?

A.J.: “The biggest thing I remember in 1958 is that a very good friend of mine Pat O’Connor lost his life on the first lap—about 10 or 15 cars were totaled out the first lap—Jerry Unser went over the wall. I spun down through it and lucky enough I didn’t hit anything. Then towards the end of the race a water hose broke and I spun in one. I remember a lot – I spun at both ends of the racetrack. They told you as a rookie that going down the backstretch you got the draft of the cars and you’ve got to be careful the first lap. They didn’t say nothing about everybody crashing in turn 3! I wasn’t prepared for that!”

Foyt, 23, was the youngest driver in the 1958 Indy 500.

Q: You’ve seen a lot of changes at the Speedway over the years. What are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen?

A.J.: “I think one of the biggest things is when they paved the front straightaway. I remember the first time I won it, the bricks were still on the front straightaway and it was very rough, very slick. So that was good when they changed that. I think the safest thing for the pit crew was to put up the pit wall separating the pits from the track [1957]. Then when they put up the SAFER barrier [the ‘soft walls’ began development in 1998 and were installed at IMS in 2002] but I never tested that—I tested the real walls. Every time they could make the racing safer at Indianapolis, they always did it.”

Q: From when you started, what is the most important safety improvement on the cars?

A.J.: “When I first started all the cars were front engine and you’d sit back where the gas tank was and you were carrying 75 gallons of fuel. Then you went to the rear-engine cars and when I was first driving them, you had fuel on both sides and in back of you. Then as they developed the rear engine cars to be safer, they cut down on the fuel you could carry and took the side tanks off. Now they just have the one tank behind the driver. Goodyear developed the fuel cell so between the two, it made it a lot safer because before when you had a crash, they’d catch fire. So they made it a lot safer by far.”

Q: Your driver Tony Kanaan billed this year as his ‘Last Lap Tour’ but he is making plans to return to Indy next year. You didn’t quit until you were 58 years old, what kept you coming back to this race?

A.J.: “I kept coming back because every time I got hurt, the media kept saying I couldn’t come back and I wanted to prove a point—yes I will be back. Coming back to Indy, the world knows the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway so if you win Indy, the world knows it. That’s one thing that kept me coming back. When I was a young kid, I always listened to it at my daddy’s shop on the radio. So to be fortunate to come up here and qualify for the race was one of the highlights in my life. Then to be lucky enough to win it [four times] and the championship [seven times], what else can you ask for in life? I had a wonderful life. I enjoyed Indy, and really, I never dreamed of this and I don’t think my parents ever dreamed of me going from the midget races in Houston, Texas to the Indianapolis 500. I know one day after I won it in 61, I was at my daddy’s shop and a lady came in and said ‘Tony, you won’t see the boy around here anymore.’ And he said, ‘Yeah? He’s down there working under the dashboard of a car.’ And she walked down and said, ‘I can’t believe you’re down here.’ So I told her, ‘My daddy needs help and I’m not too good to come back and work in this shop.’ I’ll never forget that.”

Foyt qualified for his 35th straight Indy 500 in 1992 and finished ninth in the race.

Q: What advice will you give to your rookie Dalton Kellett before he starts his first Indy 500?

A.J.: “Well try to finish the race and stay clean. It’s so much different today but that’s the biggest thing—keep your nose clean and get some experience.”

LARRY FOYT is the president of A.J. Foyt Racing which is fielding three cars in this year’s Indy 500. Following are his thoughts…

On the race: “I feel pretty good going into the 500 this year. Tony ‘s [Kanaan] been very happy with his car. We know that he knows how to run 500 miles here and get up front, so I’m really excited about that. We’ve been chasing a gremlin with Charlie’s car but we think we found it. So we’re looking forward to Carb Day and having a good practice and get him ready. He knows how to race here, so I’m sure he’ll move up quickly. Dalton’s done a really good job as a rookie, he’s gotten in a lot of laps. His goal as a rookie is to run 500 miles and get a good, solid top 10 for us. Really, it’s been a pretty good month for us. Qualifying didn’t go as well as we wanted it to but we saw that Honda did a really good job at the higher boost level, but Chevy looks really strong at race level in race practice. It’s a long race, 500 miles, so there’s no reason we can’t be up front at the end.”

Team president Larry Foyt is the race strategist for Charlie Kimball who drives the No. 4 Tresiba Chevrolet.

On empty grandstands: “It’s a little strange, different for sure. But it’s what we have to do right now. It’s still the Indy 500. I think for us—well I know my nerves were still there during qualifying. All that will be the same come race day. It’s gonna be strange without the fans but I hope we put a good shown on for everyone to watch on NBC and then get things back to normal for next year.”

TONY KANAAN will start 23rd in the No. 14 ABC Supply Chevrolet. Kanaan will start in his 19th straight Indy 500 and he has broadly hinted, despite his Last Lap Tour, that it won’t be his last 500. Following are his thoughts…

On this Indy 500: “We still have one more day as far as practice but I was actually pretty pleased with the car the way we finished Sunday. It was tough conditions out there. It was really windy and really hot so I think it was the worst – it can always get worse – but looking at the weather right now, it looks like it’s going to be better than that, so if the car felt good then, I’m pretty sure it will feel good on Sunday. 

“It’s going to be a tough race if you think about it. If you look at the grid a lot of experienced guys are in the back so maybe like in the beginning when people expect everybody to make big moves, I don’t think that’s happening because the field is pretty balanced out. You have experienced guys in the front with some rookies and then a lot of experienced guys in the back with some rookies, so it will be more of a patience race really. I don’t see people making huge moves even probably in the first half of the race. It’s a little bit hard to pass so people are going to be trying to take advantage of the yellows. Pit stops are going to be extremely important but I like my chances. I mean I’ll never enter a race not thinking I can’t win. Obviously, I have a lot of work to do starting back there but thing is I’m really happy with the car. Now what that’s going to do, we’ll find out.” 

On its being a strategy race or pure speed race: “In a race like this, everything plays out – everything. You cannot discard anything. You know, you can win with a strategy – look what happened with me in 2013. I went for a strategy, not pit stop strategy, but on the last yellow I said I want to take the lead, and that was not the race to take the lead with three laps to go. You didn’t want to lead the last lap because you saw how many passes (there were), but I don’t know…something told me that something could have happened because of those many passes and sure enough I banked and ended up winning that race. What about if I had waited? So to me, it will play a factor for sure but it’s not just strategy or just being fast – you’ve got to have it all.”

On the aeroscreen: “The biggest challenge for the drivers with the aeroscreen is that we don’t feel the wind anymore. When you are following a car, the proximity–how close you can get–you could tell by the buffering of your head. We don’t have that anymore. When you approach a car, and try to tell how close you can get, when you lift, we lost that feeling. It kind of became numb because you’re protected by the aeroscreen. We feel the safest we’ve ever been in a car but the way to judge the proximity of the other car is completely different and I don’t think I have that nailed yet.”

The aeroscreen eliminates the wind buffeting for the drivers which also proves challenging when trying to time their passes according to Kanaan.

On taking the green without fans at Indy: “I think the last weird part of not having fans is gonna happen on the parade lap because remember, we all acknowledge the fans every time and we’ll be waving to empty stands. Or we probably won’t even be waving because it will be ridiculous. And after that I think it’s going to be down to business as normal because when you have 400,000 people there, this is the last time you acknowledge them and that’s it. It’s sad – we talked about this already – but to have a race that was the price we had to pay.”

DALTON KELLETT, a rookie in this year’s Indy 500, will start 24th in the No. 41 K-Line USA Chevrolet—alongside of his teammate Kanaan. It will be Kellett’s first race IndyCar race on an oval. Following are his thoughts…

On his first Indianapolis 500: “We’re just a handful of days away from the Indy 500 and I’m really looking forward to seeing how the race is going to play out. As a rookie there’s been lots to learn and lots to get accustomed to jumping into the Indy car for my first oval race but we’ve had good track time and the Foyt team has given me a great car to get up to speed with and get used to everything. In practice things have been going quite well. Car feels solid in traffic and on Fast Friday and in qualifying I think that we showed we had pretty good straight line pace. Overall, I think looking ahead to the race I’m just excited and very thankful for the opportunity to be here, thankful for the chance from AJ Foyt Racing and K-Line Insulators USA, Liberty Coach Inc. for the support for this race. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m very excited to be here so I can’t wait to take the green flag on Sunday, August 23rd on NBC at 1:00PM (ET).

On his biggest challenge: “My biggest challenge is gonna be seeing how things play out in traffic during the race. The aeroscreen punches a big hole in the air and makes it relatively tough to follow closely behind. I think most passing is gonna happen earlier on and the stints are really capitalizing on fresh tires to make moves and work our way up the field.

On his goals: “Our goals for this race are going to be having a clean run, making it 500 miles and staying on the lead lap. I think if we keep that in mind with clean pit stops and playng it smart in traffic and with a strategy then if we’re on the lead lap in that last stint or two, we’ll be in a good shot for the finish and that’s how we’re approaching it.”

On what thrills him most about the race: “I think what I’m most excited for is taking the start three-wide. It will be a first experience for me. I’ve never done a three-wide start so that’s a classic Indianapolis 500 tradition and it’s going be very exciting and then you know, settling in and just hitting my marks and making sure that we’re precise. Managing traffic, well it’s going be challenges but it’s going to be really exciting. We’ll have lots of pits stops, lots of opportunities to make that car better so and just, I think, the process of seeing how we how move through the pack and position ourselves for a good shot at the finish is going to be a challenge but also the good fun of the day.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL will start 29th in the No. 4 Tresiba Chevrolet in what will be his 10th Indy 500 but his first 500 driving for Foyt. Following are his thoughts…

On the race: “The Indianapolis 500 is still the biggest race in the world in my eyes and it would mean more than anything for me and my team to win on Sunday. This Indianapolis 500 event has looked and felt different than any of my previous nine. It is strange with the calendar being in August and it feels incomplete without the best racing fans in the world at the track, but the opportunity to win the greatest spectacle in racing and what that means from Drinking the milk to being forever enshrined in the Borg Warner trophy is forever unchanged. 

On losing out on track time last Sunday: “While losing out on any track time in the abbreviate practice schedule for this year’s Indy 500 isn’t ideal, I have complete confidence in not only the 4 crew but also the set up information from my teammates Tony Kanaan and Dalton Kellett. My team, the car, myself will be ready to take the green flag and the double checkered flag on Sunday for the 104th running of the Indy 500.”

Mike Pawlowski joined A.J. Foyt Racing as the race engineer for the No. 4 Tresiba Chevrolet this year. It is his first year working with driver Charlie Kimball. The first race he saw was the 1982 Indianapolis 500 with his father, who’d gotten tickets from vendor Norton (a sponsor of Roger Penske’s) through his job at a machine shop. We asked him a few questions…

Q: How did you become interested in racing?

MP: “I got interested in racing in high school. I went to my first race at the Indy 500 in 1982 with my dad. I was 16 years old.

Q: Where did you grow up? Was your family involved in racing before you?

MP: “I grew up on the south side of Chicago in a suburb called Orland Park. No one else in my family was interested in racing.”

Q: What is your educational background?

MP: “My degree is a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois. My areas of concentration were vehicle dynamics and human factors (as they relate to design). I graduated in 1989.”

Q: What is your past racing experience?

MP: “My past racing experience include Formula Atlantic, SCCA production, Indy Lights, IMSA, Global RallyCross, Champ Car, and INDYCAR.  I have spent over 20 years in INDYCAR. I won three GRC championships with Scott Speed, but my greatest achievement is winning the championship with Paul Tracy in 2003 in Champ Car at Players/Forsythe Racing.

Q: What are the challenges facing race engineers this season with compressed schedules and how do you overcome them?

MP: “The challenge presented by reduced schedules is two-fold, one is setup and two is time management. You are forced to start the car setup-wise in its most competitive condition therefore you must have a good history of competitive setups. But you cannot choose long changes due to the limited track time. Therefore, you have to balance setup and time. It’s an interesting challenge forcing race engineers out of their comfort zone. I’m trying to overcome these challenges by thinking differently–not just how it was done in the past!”

Race engineer Mike Pawlowski gets feedback from his driver Charlie Kimball.

Q: Is it more difficult having to work with a new team and a new driver in this situation? What are the positives about working with Kimball?

MP: “I like working with a new team/driver during this pandemic. It allows me the freedom to ask,  ‘How can we do this better?’ without the history of ‘we’ve always done it this way.’ Charlie is good to work with because he understands the car’s limitations well. And he is able to communicate what he needs to go faster.”

Q: What are your goals for this season?

MP: “My goals are to improve every weekend and end up in the top ten in points in the championship.”

Charlie Kimball has shown speed at Indy this year.

Q: How did you spend your time during the lockdown?

MP: “I spent my lockdown cleaning my house and organizing my garage.”

Q: What hobbies/interests do you have outside of racing? 

MP: “My hobbies are golf, fishing, hanging out in my garage and spending time with my kids Elise and Zach.”

The 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 will be run Sunday, August 23 and will be broadcast on NBC starting at 1 p.m. ET.